Christopher Nolan has never been one for tearjerkers. As a filmmaker, he brings a technician’s focus to his work, laying out the parts he wants to use and methodically assembling his machine. His stories almost always involve loss or sorrow, but such emotions are narrowly defined and shaped to fit the final product. Nolan’s not heartless, but his work tends to place an emphasis on showmanship ahead of relationship. Part of this is done narratively — relationships are important but subservient to a bigger technological goal — but it’s also done cinematically. He moves nimbly between scenes, locations, and timeframes the way a conductor might layer in instruments to create a score, ultimately building to one sustained swirling chord as his characters externalize the film’s big ideas. The Dark Knight, a pop art masterpiece, is one of his best examples of this kind of machination and execution, as intricate plots and rapidly paced scenes are blended together until Batman and the Joker are finally, inexorably, squaring off and forced to reckon with the fact that each one’s nature creates the other. Or there’s The Prestige, a twisty psychological battle between (at least) two magicians that’s as much about Nolan’s flair for big reveals as anything else. Every time, you can practically see Nolan striding back and forth across the stage, and though you sometimes know he’s misdirecting you, the show is worth the price of admission.
What makes his new film, Interstellar, different — and what winds up making it one of his weakest films in many ways — is the director’s over-reliance on the nature of the relationships he’s manipulating for story purposes. This is, indeed, his tearjerker moment, but years of ignoring emotional honesty for the sake of spectacle leave Nolan woefully underprepared to write, direct, and depict the beating of actual human hearts. Sharing writing credit with his brother, Jonathan (who began the script years ago), Nolan approaches romantic and familial pairings as if he’s never really dealt with them before. Every conversation that revolves around love or relationships is cluttered with aphorism, bad philosophy, or genuine groaners. It’s not that love is a bad or false motivation for narrative action (it’s what drives every action, really), but rather, Nolan seems to completely misunderstand what love is and how to talk about it. One character, an astronaut played by Anne Hathaway, delivers a monologue deep into the film about wanting to see an old love she hasn’t seen in a long time, but rather than rest in this completely natural and legitimate motivation, Nolan has her expound about how maybe love can transcend space, time, and the forces of the physical universe. We already believed her, but because of her wild insistences, now we find ourselves doubting. Not since Cloud Atlas has a technically proficient filmmaker so grossly missed the mark when it comes to fleshing out real relationships, and since Interstellar wants to be all about those relationships, things get messy fast.
The film’s story unfolds in a near-ish future, with Earth overrun by an unexplained crop plague known only as “the blight” that’s led to widespread starvation and the slow crumbling of society. In a last-ditch effort to find another habitable planet, NASA secretly sends a group of astronauts on solo exploration missions through a wormhole that suddenly appeared next to Saturn. None return, so the group turns to former NASA pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to fly a mission through the wormhole to see what the earlier group discovered and, hopefully, to find a new planet for Earth’s dwindling population. Cooper’s path back to NASA is emblematic of the film’s generally loose treatment of logic and reason: he and his young daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), are puzzled by weird piles of dust and gravitational fluctuations in her bedroom, and they deduce that the dust and strange book piles are a code from another intelligence that translates into binary, and further, that the binary represents coordinates, which turn out to be the remains of NORAD and the current home of NASA. Even more coincidental, one of the NASA leaders is an old friend and mentor of Cooper’s, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), but rather than seek out Cooper on their own to see if he can fly their mission, they just seem pleasantly surprised when he turns up at their compound after a staggeringly convoluted series of guesses and hunches.
Brand’s daughter, a scientist and astronaut named Amelia (Hathaway), is tasked with accompanying Cooper on his journey beyond the infinite, along with astronauts Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley). Nolan takes his time getting to this stage of the story, though, focusing most of the first hour on Cooper’s family, and specifically on his relationship with Murph. It’s this father-daughter bond that becomes the film’s driving engine and most prominent emotional touchstone, but Nolan’s not quite sure how to pull it off. Cooper’s goodbye to Murph before he leaves on the mission is curiously awkward — he’s unable to speak or act like a recognizable human, falling back on cheap platitudes — but Nolan tries to sell it like it’s a moment of pure pathos. This is when you realize why so many of Nolan’s protagonists are loners with dead wives or girlfriends: he’s much more comfortable skipping the hard work of being emotionally present in favor of pining away in the corner over a memory.
Once Cooper’s team takes to space, though, headed for the wormhole and who knows what else, the film locks in. This is when Nolan gets to be his most visually dazzling self, with many sequences shot specifically for IMAX, which is easily the best way to view the film. Nolan’s constructed it as a dedicated theatrical experience, as much a ride as anything else. But this section of the film is also when Nolan’s back on more solid narrative ground: clear purpose (rescue astronauts, find new planets, survive) and clear regret (each step in the journey takes Cooper farther from the daughter he loves). The exploration of the planets and their potential hazards is mesmerizing, even as the words and deeds of the characters seem to grow progressively more hollow and rote. There are, after all, only so many paths a story like this can take, and while Nolan isn’t out to remake existing sci-fi classics, he’s also smart enough to shine a light on his influences. As he told Empire magazine, “You can’t pretend 2001 doesn’t exist when you’re making Interstellar.” Cooper’s team even has their own A.I. on board in the form of a bantering robot named TARS, whose sleek, blocky shape is a mechanized version of the monoliths of 2001. Nolan also loses the thread a bit by rocketing between Cooper’s explorers and the NASA crew at home, including the adult Murph, played by Jessica Chastain. He wants to shove so much into the film that the entire thing starts to feel uncertain and overstuffed after a point; at 169 minutes, it’s also Nolan’s longest film (barely edging out The Dark Knight Returns), and the weight and length become tangible as the tangled plot doubles back on itself again and again. There are lies, deceptions, and an unsubtle repetition of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
Tasked with carrying the film, McConaughey does a wonderful job; he’s certainly more capable of selling the ludicrous dialogue than Hathaway. McConaughey also gets to do it all: fight for humanity, wrestle with the memory of his daughter, and openly break down while watching video messages of her as she grows into womanhood. You can see the sorrow of time’s passage on his face. Hathaway is less reliable, but she’s also forced to be a cipher for whatever a scene might happen to need, progressing from independent person to damsel-in-distress over the course of the film. She’s never a character, just an obstacle for the drama of the moment.
One of the most jaw-dropping sequences has nothing to do with the sights and sounds of space travel, either, but with the effects of relativity and perception that recall the dizzying realities of Inception. Surveying a planet near a black hole, Cooper and Brand subject themselves to a time dilation that costs them years for every hour they spend exploring on the surface; even though their sojourn there is brief and passes quickly in their eyes, they wind up losing decades of “real” time, returning to their orbiting station to find a fellow astronaut older and grayer. It’s a subtle but powerful effect, executed entirely in the spell of suspended disbelief Nolan’s able to weave in his best moments, and it’s gripping to watch him carry off ambitious and effective moments like this.
Yet moments like that are fleet, and few. Much of the film, especially as it hurtles toward its metaphysically pretzeled end, is maudlin and phony, with Hans Zimmer’s score hammering home every moment with the same full roar. There’s clear ambition here, but no direction; emphasis, but no meaning. Nolan feels desperate above all to forge a connection, but rather than breathe life into characters or their relationships, he strives to generate vague, abstract yearnings projected onto a broad father-daughter template. It’s as if he only wants to capture the idea of love, and not its substance; many times, it’s not clear he knows the difference.